During the course of 2017 a number of exhibitions and associated activities have been held to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the creation of Guernica by Picasso. Among them was the exhibition 1937. On Gernika. War and "civitas", held at the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum as one of the events devised to mark San Sebastián as European Cultural Capital 2016.
With the same aim of highlighting the importance of Guernica, one of the key works of 20th-century art, over the next few months and with the sponsorship of Fundación Santander the Guest Work programme will be presenting a major painting by Pablo Ruiz Picasso (Malaga, 1881 -Mougins, 1973). This is an exceptional loan as the painting is one of the most important works in the collection of the prestigious Beyeler Foundation (Riehen, Basel, Switzerland), founded in 1982 by the art dealer Ernst Beyeler and his wife, who had close links with Picasso in the 1950s.
Femme assise dans un fauteuil (Dora) (1938) has been selected for its connections with Guernica and with other works associated with the painting's creation in 1937, as well as to the Charnel House cycle of the mid-1940s.
The year 1938, when this portrait was painted, is inevitably associated with the Spanish Civil War and with a climate of imminent war in Europe, making Picasso's work an expression of the historical drama of those years.
It was at this point that Picasso acquired political awareness and when his art consequently became a vehicle for an intellectual denunciation of oppression and war: Guernica is a denunciation of savagery that would very quickly become a universal symbol of peace.
The chromatic reduction employed in Femme assise dans un fauteuil (Dora) – a grisaille which emphasises the work's spatial structure through the ochre coloured brushstrokes on the figure and on the floor – and the painting's dramatic intensity can both be seen in relation to Guernica. Furthermore, the way the figure is hemmed in and the compositional tension reflect the particular biographical circumstances in which Picasso's painted the portrait: during this period Dora Maar (Paris, 1907-1997), who is referred to in the work's title, had a decisive influence on both his life and work.
Picasso had met the photographer Dora Maar two years earlier in Paris, just prior to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Since the late 1920s Maar had been closely connected to the Surrealist group and it was in fact the Dada poet Paul Éluard who introduced her to the artist.
At that date Maar was involved with the philosopher Georges Bataille while Picasso was in a relationship with Marie-Thérèse Walter, although still married to Olga Khokhlova. Maar's intelligence and solid artistic training meant that their relationship, which lasted until 1943, went beyond erotic passion and gave rise to a fruitful intellectual exchange, of which one of the most important consequences was that of awakening Picasso's political consciousness. Maar was also responsible for the famous photo-reportage on the creation of Guernica. She took the photographs, which are a crucial historical document for understanding the painting's execution, in Picasso's studio on the rue des Grands-Augustins in Paris between May and June 1937 and they were published shortly afterwards in the magazine Cahiers d'Art.
A source of inspiration as well as the artist's lover, Maar posed on numerous occasions for Picasso in that studio during the eight years of their relationship, during which he created one of his most celebrated series on the theme of the "weeping woman".
Other women such as Marie-Thérèse, the artist's muse of the previous decade, also posed for Picasso, giving rise to the portrait typology of the "seated woman" which is widely found in his oeuvre and which gave rise to a remarkable repertoire of oils, gouaches and drawings. Going beyond conventional portraiture, these creations became an interesting field of artistic experimentation while also transmitting psychological aspects of the model, her state of mind and her relationship to the painter in varying degrees of intensity. In the case of Femme assise dans un fauteuil (Dora) the expressive force of the subject and her stormy relationship with the painter combine with the drama of the historical period to produce an enormous emotional impact on the viewer. The large format of the canvas (188.5 x 129.5 cm) is a further element that contributes to the work's visual expressivity.
The frontality of the image is only broken by the woman's face in a seeming reminiscence of Picasso's fully Cubist language of earlier decades, with its rounded features and simultaneous profiles defined by thick black lines. Only the hair and high-heeled shoes add an element of sensuality to the portrait, which has the additional accessory of a small hat.
The rest of the body is "deconstructed" into a series of three-dimensional blocks executed with a graphic line and functioning to unfold the composition in spatial terms. The body includes a curved breast and a triangular dress with an inverted triangle suggesting the sitter's sex. The entire figure seems to be doubly trapped: firstly through the cube-like space of the image, which resembles a cell; and secondly due to the fact that it is boxed into the armchair, from which only the arms escape.
The monumentality of the image as a whole, the modernity of the artistic language employed by Picasso and the work's biographical and historical connotations all make this work one of the most intense and moving expressions of the period.
Pablo Picasso Málaga,1881-Mougins, Alpes Maritimes, France, 1973
Femme assise dans un fauteuil (Dora)
[Woman Sitting in an Armchair (Dora)], 1938
Oil on canvas
Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, Switzerland